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Dodgers survive tense NL wild-card game, top Cardinals on Chris Taylor's walk-off homer

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LOS ANGELES — The pressurized evening of single-elimination baseball that the Dodgers tried so hard to avoid turned out to be just as stomach-churning as they feared.

The reigning World Series champs only survived the St. Louis Cardinals because of some walk-off magic from Chris Taylor. The valuable utilityman, who entered the game as a defensive replacement off the Dodgers' intentionally deep bench, launched a 2-run walk-off blast in the ninth inning off reliever Alex Reyes to win the NL wild-card game, 3-1.

Former St. Louis great Albert Pujols led off the bottom of the ninth for the Dodgers with a ringing line drive that fell into center fielder Harrison Bader's glove for a loud, emotional out. But the relentless Los Angeles lineup kept applying pressure. After a miserable struggle of a season, 2019 NL MVP Cody Bellinger drew his second walk and stole his second base of the evening — eventually getting to trot home as Taylor sent Dodger Stadium into hysterics with the club's first postseason walk-off homer since Max Muncy put an end to Game 5 of the 2018 World Series.

By advancing to the NLDS, the Dodgers will earn a crack at the San Francisco Giants team that bested them by a single game in an epic NL West race. It will be the first time in the 131-year history of the Giants-Dodgers rivalry that they will face one-another in a playoff series.

The outcome saved Major League Baseball from a torrent of questions about the fairness of its single-elimination wild-card format. There surely would have been outcry that a best-of-three, at minimum, would have been fairer if a juggernaut team’s 100-win season unraveled over the course of one off night.

The Dodgers weren’t supposed to be in that precarious spot, of course. They weren’t supposed to have the fate of their season rest on nine innings of wild-card randomness. This is a team that returned the core of last year’s talented world championship roster, entered this year as the overwhelming favorite to repeat and then added a Cy Young contender and an MVP candidate in a theft of a midseason trade.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 06: Max Scherzer #31 of the Los Angeles Dodgers is pulled from the game in the fifth inning against the St. Louis Cardinals during the National League Wild Card Game at Dodger Stadium on October 06, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Max Scherzer struggled with his control, but held the Cardinals to one run in 4 1/3 innings as the Dodgers eventually pulled out a dramatic win. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

In many ways, the Dodgers exceeded expectations. They matched a franchise record for victories and outscored their opponents by a league-best 269 runs. Their 106 wins were more than any other reigning World Series champ has mustered since baseball’s divisional era began 52 years ago. And yet because the San Francisco Giants tallied 107 victories and the Dodgers’ all-out sprint to catch them fell one win short, here were the World Series favorites facing an elimination game against a dangerous opponent before the real playoffs even began.

The Cardinals reeled off a franchise-record 17 straight victories in September before easing off the throttle after clinching a playoff berth. They had ageless Adam Wainwright on the mound, a marvelous defense behind him, some formidable bats in the middle of their lineup and a sense of belief in their clubhouse.

The big question entering play Wednesday night was whether Max Scherzer could bounce back from a poor finish to the regular season and lug the Dodgers to safety. The answer … was complicated.

The Scherzer who was roughed up for 10 earned runs and 17 hits in his last two starts against Colorado and San Diego did not show up. Nor did the pitcher who was practically untouchable in his first nine starts after his July 30 trade from Washington.

There instead was a grinder who displayed his trademark mettle if not his usual sharpness or command. He walked three, hit another batter and surrendered at least one baserunner in every inning he threw, but he prevented the Cardinals from delivering any big hits. The only run he surrendered came via a first-inning wild pitch, a sharp curveball that bounced in front of home plate and allowed Tommy Edman to score from third base standing up.

Dave Roberts took a bold risk with two on and one out in the top of the fifth when he removed Scherzer after only 94 pitches. As Scherzer paced in the dugout and second-guessers assembled on social media, Joe Kelly validated his manager’s gamble, inducing a ground ball and a strikeout to escape unscathed.

Brusdar Graterol, Blake Treinen, Corey Knebel and Kenley Jansen combined to hold down the Cardinals attack thereafter, but the Dodgers’ previously surging lineup didn’t generate many scoring chances either. They didn’t get on the scoreboard until the bottom of the fourth inning when Justin Turner clobbered a hanging curveball from Wainwright, then paused to admire what he’d done as the ball disappeared into the left-field bullpen.

The Dodgers had a gift-wrapped opportunity to score the previous inning when two Wainwright walks sandwiched around a Mookie Betts single loaded the bases for Trea Turner. With the crowd on its feet, Turner chased a curveball above the strike zone and hit into an inning-ending broken-bat double play.

The Dodgers had previously encountered the Cardinals in the playoffs five times. Four out of five of those series ended with the Cardinals dousing each other in light beer and the Dodgers lamenting what had gone wrong.

This time there was no Jack Clark home run, no Clayton Kershaw late-inning meltdown, no Hanley Ramirez fractured rib.

The Dodgers survived nine high-pressure, win-or-go-home innings and lived to see another day.

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